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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Mapping the West

When explorer John Charles Frémont and his exhausted company of U. S. Topographical Corpsmen reached the Sacramento Valley trading post known as Sutter’s Fort on March 6, 1844, the expedition’s surveyor-cartographer Charles Preuss was more than ready for a good meal after subsisting on mule and dog meat for endless weeks. He hated having to kill and eat those faithful animals—especially when one of the sacrificed mules had been Jack, his favorite riding mule. But it was either that, or starve to death as the company traveled south from Oregon Territory through barren landscapes and across California’s snow-packed Sierra Nevada.

Authorized by the United States government to explore and map specified regions west of the Rocky Mountains, and guided by experienced mountain man Thomas (Broken Hand) Fitzpatrick, the expedition had examined a small portion of the Great Salt Lake before reaching their destination at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River. Then—ignoring orders to return east via the Oregon Trail—Frémont had led his men south on an excursion through desolate deserts, and into California from the eastern side of the Sierra. Along the way they found and named Pyramid Lake. They were also the first white men to see Lake Tahoe, from a mountaintop vantage point, as they traversed what is now the Carson Pass.

Through it all Charles Preuss sketched the amazing sights they saw and kept detailed notes of precise longitudes and latitudes—notes he used to later draw detailed maps so accurate that they formed the basis for all western maps for the following two decades.

But their route, especially the last part over the Sierra Nevada, was extremely rough and Preuss was not a hardened frontiersman like some of the others. Ten years older than his leader and somewhat dour and ill-humored, Charles was a city man who loved the pleasures of civilization—whereas John Frémont found joy and poetry in the wilderness landscapes. Hardly kindred souls, the two men often argued, over matters both important and trivial, throughout their years together.

Born in Höhscheid in 1803 as George Karl Ludwig Preuss, Charles was a surveyor for the Prussian government before emigrating to America in 1834 with his wife and children. He took a job with the Coast Survey under Ferdinand R. Hassler, and when funds for the Survey ran out in 1838, Hassler recommended Preuss to Frémont, a young Army lieutenant who was then preparing an expedition to explore the lands between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Afterward, Preuss was the cartographer on two more of Frémont’s five explorations of the American West. On the 1843-44 expedition, Preuss was the highest paid member of the group, receiving slightly more than $2,000 compared to guide Thomas Fitzpatrick’s fee of $1,750.

Preuss survived Frémont’s disastrous 1848-49 expedition and refused to go along on the fifth one. Instead he signed on with a section of the Pacific Railroad Survey, assigned to exploring and mapping a southwestern railway route. He returned home in poor health, having suffered a sunstroke, and didn’t improve. In September 1854 Charles Preuss committed suicide, but his excellent pencil sketches of landscapes and his outstanding topographical maps live on as lasting contributions to the American West, and the science of cartography.

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